The Lives of Others in DDR/DDR


Originally shown as an installation in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, Amie Siegel’s DDR/DDR—named for the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, a/k/a East Germany—

is a leisurely excavation of the perfect 1984 state: a nation where one half of the population spied on the other half and, as the artist points out, the Stasi (Ministry of State Security) was the largest single employer. Information was the DDR’s most important product and, despite official suspicion of Western psychology, the Stasi was pleased to use group therapy as another means of monitoring the population.

Shown five years ago at Film Forum, Siegel’s Empathy was a programmatically precocious inquiry into the nature of psychoanalysis; although a late addition to the corpus of Stasi art, DDR/DDR is an even more astute, precise, self-regarding piece of work. Frequently on camera, the filmmaker interviews the natives (including her soundman) in German, gently pushing them to discuss their feelings about the DDR and its demise. Occasionally, she puts herself on the couch as well.

Siegel has an eye for the DDR’s distinctively fusty modern design and an ethnographer’s interest in DDR culture. An editing-room discussion about how best to translate the term Die Wende (as the post–Berlin Wall change in the DDR is called) turns into a group session so naturalistic it could only have been staged. The movie’s longest sequence is set in the tepees of the Indian hobby clubs where ordinary, if obsessed, Germans spend a week or two dressed and living as Native Americans. Noting that these unavoidably ridiculous powwows are a largely East German phenomenon, Siegel reads them as a complicated, doubly romantic form of ostalgie—at once an expression of countercultural post-DDR freedom and the idealization of the DDR’s self-proclaimed anti-materialist, communal values. (To clinch the point, she quotes extensively from the pro-Indian westerns produced in East Germany throughout the ’70s.)

As self-reflexive as it is, DDR/DDR devotes much time to considering (and even using) anachronistic Stasi technology. Siegel interviews a West German who collects Stasi spy cameras on eBay and gets a former agent to describe the debriefing that went on in special “conspirative” apartments—the friendly kaffeeklatsch atmosphere he recalls is belied by the awkward murk of surveillance tapes of one such session. A dutiful analyst, the filmmaker appears to have gone through hundreds of hours of such “anonymized” tapes in search of odd personal moments and anomalies—even discovering a quasi-underground movie produced by a bored spy. Here is the ultimate expression of Stasi art: intelligence for its own sake.